The long-awaited Jerusalem-Tel Aviv express train made its first test run Sunday, with the line’s journey time expected to last a brisk 28 minutes.
The official opening of the new high-speed train line is six months away, in April 2018, but a deliberately weighted-down train inaugurated the track, Channel 2 reported.
The purpose of this first trip, with a freight train loaded up so that it weighed a total of 1,200 tons, was twofold: to test the bridges and rails, and to strengthen and stabilize the concrete and tracks.
The train will continue to go back and forth between the two cities over the next few weeks. If all goes smoothly, the line will open for passengers in April.
Transport Minister Yisrael Katz spoke of the impact and benefit of the new train line.
“This is a fast train which will take 28 minutes to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said. “This will ensure Jerusalem’s status and will give people the ability to live in it, to set up businesses and will completely change the connection between Jerusalem and the rest of the State of Israel.”
The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail project, which is projected to cost an estimated NIS 7 billion ($1.8 billion) and has been in the works since 2001, will cut travel time down significantly from the 78-minute ride on the old line built during the days of the Ottoman Empire.
The trains will reach speeds of up to 160 kph (100 mph). When fully operational, they will depart every 15 minutes in each direction, carrying up to 1,000 passengers each.
The massive public works project has faced many hurdles since planning started 15 years ago. Originally slated to be completed in 2008, environmental activists stalled the plans after raising a number of concerns about potential damage to the protected hills and valleys surrounding the capital.
Environmental groups tried to force the planners to build a tunnel under the Yitlah Stream instead of passing over it with a bridge. The Interior Ministry’s Planning Commission decided that the tunnel would hold up the project for at least two years, and ruled in favor of Israel Railways.
The high-speed rail line also crosses the Green Line twice, once near Latrun and once near Mevasseret Zion, inviting criticism from the Israeli left and pro-Palestinian groups. A German company advising the project withdrew in the face of pressure from activists.
The longest tunnel in the Fast Lane project is 11.6 km (7.2 miles) long, making it the longest tunnel in Israel. A massive German tunnel boring machine drilled each of the tunnels, specially customized to drill in one motion at the size of the tunnel. The machine used 24 motors to drill directly into the hard Jerusalem stone, advancing at a rate of 16 to 20 meters (50 to 65 feet) per day.
In Mevasseret Zion, the train tracks are 200 meters (650 feet) below ground, as the suburb is perched on hilltops higher than the capital. In Jerusalem, the train station, built near the Central Bus Station, is 80 meters (260 feet) below ground and doubles as a public bomb shelter.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.